Transition points in sexual relationships: life course variation or social class differences?

Sharon Sassler, Cornell University
Katherine Michelmore, Cornell University
Jennifer A. Holland, University of Southampton and Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI)

Despite a wealth of research on union formation, to date relatively little is known about when and how relationships progress from sexual involvement to shared living and beyond, or to break-up. We examine how markers of life course stage (age, educational attainment, prior union experience) and social class (maternal educational attainment, maternal age at first birth, family structure as a child, and respondent educational attainment) differentiate the pace of transition into union formation (marriage, cohabitation), relationship dissolution, or persistence in a sexually involved relationship. Data are from women ages 18 and 39 from the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) (n = 1,151) whose most recent sexual relationship began in the 12 months prior to their interview. Many sexual relationships end quickly; 31.3% of women’s new sexual relationships had ended within a few months. But sexual relationships also transition rapidly into coresidential unions; 23.2% were either cohabiting with or married to that partner within 12 months. Social class indicators are better predictors of relationship transitions than are life course explanations.

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Presented in Session 1: Cohabitation on both sides of the Atlantic